Fibre Channel SAN Speed Set To Double Next Year

Storage area networks are about to get a whole lot faster as the various components necessary to put together a 4-Gbps Fibre Channel SAN finally hits the market.

Fibre Channel SANs currently run at 2 Gbps, but that speed should double beginning next year, according to vendors of components such as switches, host bus adapters (HBAs) and hard drives.

Several years ago, the Fibre Channel industry expected to move to 10-Gbps Fibre Channel to keep up with the move from Gigabit Ethernet to 10-Gbps Ethernet. However, that move would have required users to replace existing equipment with new 10-Gbps components.

A few years ago, several vendors instead proposed to move to 4 Gbps to offer a boost in performance while remaining compatible with existing 1- and 2-Gbps equipment. Not only would it protect customer investments in SAN products, it also would increase performance faster than could have been done waiting for 10-Gbps products to hit the market.

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The bump in performance is welcomed by the channel even though it will be some time next year before all the pieces finally fall into place.

Merrill Likes, president of UpTime, an Edmond, Okla.-based solution provider, said he has been waiting for the move to 4 Gbps ever since storage vendor QLogic started talking about the original specifications some time ago.

"At the time, everyone yawned and said no one wanted it," Likes said. "But customers said, 'Yes, we do.' "

Likes said he expects 4-Gbps Fibre Channel to be a common technology. "Like iSCSI, we're seeing more and more of it," he said. Unlike moving storage networks from Fibre Channel to iSCSI, the move from 2- to 4-Gbps Fibre Channel is a natural progression, Likes said. "The cost of deployment [of iSCSI] is lower than Fibre Channel and it is easier to manage. But it is not as easy to deploy."

On the Fibre Channel switch side, Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based QLogic unveiled its 4-Gbps model this month and is already testing the product with OEMs, said Roger Klein, vice president of product support. He expects general availability of the switch and related software in the first quarter of 2005.

McData, Broomfield, Colo., is refreshing its line of swit- ches for 4 Gbps and expects to have them qualifying for OEMs during the first quarter of 2005, said Steve Scully, director of product management. Director-class switches should follow in the second half of next year, he said.

San Jose, Calif.-based Brocade Communications Systems' 4-Gbps, 3-port Silkworm 4100 switch is now available via IBM, said CTO Jay Kidd. A 4-Gbps version of its blade switch is expected in the second quarter of next year, he said.

QLogic expects its 4-Gbps Fibre Channel HBAs to ship at about the same time as its switches, but most major vendors said their HBAs should be generally available a short time after their switches are released.

The move from 2- to 4-Gbps Fibre Channel a natural progression and it is easier to deploy than iSCSI.

Milpitas, Calif.-based LSI Logic's 4-Gbps HBAs are undergoing qualifications, with software and drivers being tested for interoperability, said Steve Looby, product manager for the company's SAN adapters. He expects the HBAs to be available in the first half of 2005.

Emulex, Costa Mesa, Calif., has already demonstrated a working 4-Gbps HBA and has just started sampling to OEMs, said Joe Teolis, vice president of HBA product marketing. He expects to see HBAs coming to market by mid-2005.

Seagate Technology's 4-Gbps hard drives are expected to ship to customers for testing next April or May and will be available in volume by the third quarter, said Willis Whittington, interface planning manager for the Scotts Valley, Calif.-based company.

By the time those components are available, arrays for 4 Gbps also are expected to be ready. Engenio Information Technologies, Milpitas, Calif., and other array vendors will start rolling out such arrays over the next few months, said Steve Gardner, director of product marketing for the vendor. Initial units, however, may come with a 4-Gbps front end and a 2-Gbps back end for use before 4-Gbps hard drives become available, he said.

Scott Winslow, president of Winslow Technology Group, a Boston-based solution provider, said he didn't realize 4-Gbps Fibre Channel was so close. "Anything to boost performance, which an upgrade to 4 Gbps does, is of interest to customers. It also gives us a reason to bring upgrades to customers," Winslow said.

The move to 4-Gbps Fibre Channel also will boost the server business, Likes said. "It will take quite a server to keep up with 4-Gbps Fibre Channel."